Something that I struggle with is the idea of group culpability. My film students just got through the triple-whammy of Good, Nuremberg, and a reading of Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower, and one of the things we’ve been talking about is the level of responsibility an individual bears – if any – for the behavior of a group to which that individual belongs. It’s something I talked to my freshmen about, as well, when Martin came to talk to them about the ways that he struggles with being German and the son of a Nazi official.
I have never really come to any clear decision about how I feel about this idea. I mean, do I, as a modern American, have any right to feel guilty about slavery or the Native American genocide? Do I bear responsibility for water-boarding or drone strikes, or anything else that is done in the name of my country but very much without my endorsement? A very big part of me believes that I DO; that I, as an engaged citizen, shoulder a portion of the blame for everything bad that happens on my proverbial watch, just as I get to share in the celebration of good things that happen. That being said, I’m also not so arrogant to think that I’m powerful enough to directly influence any of these things, so the share of blame or credit that belongs to me is exactly the same as any other competent adult in my culture.
I’m thinking about these things today because I’ve been made aware that members of a group to which I have been proud to belong have behaved in a way that I find not only unconscionable, but downright repugnant. I am furious about this and, as a result, have distanced myself from the people in question because anything that I have to say to them right now is only going to make matters worse.
I’ve gone out of my way to apologize to the people who’ve been the target of this behavior, and they have been gracious and kind and have assured me that they in no way hold me responsible for the behavior of my fellows. That’s not good enough, though, and I’m trying to figure a way that I can calm myself down sufficiently to point out to the perpetrators that their behavior not only reflects incredibly poorly on them, but on all of us who associate with them.